I consider McDonald’s a kid friendly place. Looking for ways to add excitement beyond the Happy Meal, McDonald’s in the US is marketing ‘celebrity bundles’. Travis Scott lent his name to one such bundle. More recently it is Cardi B and Offset with a “date night” bundle. Ahem. Kiddies might be fine with the lyrics of the celeb duo. But parents – and some franchise owners – not so much. Maybe McDonald’s is struggling not just with brand differentiation, but also with the average parent’s plight of finding good music without explicit lyrics!

Which brings me to discuss the two main branding types.

Surround Branding

Sometimes you can’t or won’t change your product. Maybe because there’s nothing new to do in the category. Or maybe your customers like predictability. Unfortunately that can also make your brand boring. That’s when you have to look beyond the functional benefit of a bag of French Fries or cheeseburger and add a “surround” element. The Fries remain the same but your customers get excited because “Offset and Cardi B eat it too!”

Water is a classic example of the surround branding type. The functional benefit is to quench thirst. Bottled water offers convenience to quench your thirst. But you feel differently about water depending on whether it comes from a tap, a plastic bottle, a glass bottle, from the Himalayas, from France and so on. You pay a hefty premium for this brand, too. Heck, the Tata Group is willing to shell out a billion bucks for Bisleri! Which, to be fair, is what bottled water is referred to in India.

Surround branding has the benefit of being infinitely stretchable. All aspects of the manufacturing process can contribute to the distribution. For services, all elements can play a role.

Marketing Takeaway:

Buy my book and check that you have mined all the potential elements to build your surround brand. (Ok, ok, it’s a marketing takeaway for my book too!) But seriously, check that you have thought through all aspects of your “origin story” to add authenticity and flair to your brand.

Core Branding:

Brands can give up on functional differentiation too soon. Growing up we put fried pooris and muruku on newspaper to drain the oil. As did street vendors and shops. Very eco-friendly. Until of course we felt that the ink might not be so healthy. So I’ve been buying kitchen paper by eyeballing the size of the roll or number of sheets or just the price. You might think that kitchen paper is commoditised – but then Scott’s thought differently. They now have a roll which says that it can “absorb upto 127 calories”! Definitely makes a difference in selection.

This is actually clever marketing – to identify a customer need and provide a metric that we can understand.

Marketing Takeaway:

Evaluate whether your product offers any functional differentiation. If not, (a) see if it is possible (b) move to being a surround brand.

Keep calm and innovate:

Yes, yes, AI will take jobs. But there will be a need for people to manage the AI. And they will be the ones who can put multiple thoughts together to create real change.

Also, as the world generally gets richer, there will be newer needs. Not just material ones, but for health and wellness. I admire Ashok Soota for his continued enthusiasm for new ventures, and his new one, happiesthealth.com educates us about our own bodies. Diseases and conditions that once meant immediate death or chronic pain are now treatable and humans will want to access these solutions.

Which brings me to the last aspect of this newsletter. There has been much hoopla about a journalist’s chat with Bing’s AI that went down the rabbit hole of it wanting to be a sentient being. Hmmm. Trouble is, if bots also have opinions and feelings will they be more productive than volatile humans?!

Catch AI being good:

Sure, AI does a lot of weird stuff at present. And sure, it will eventually take your job. (Don’t feel bad – I used to fax press releases!) Staying mindful and in the present, we must admit that it does some stuff well. How do we make the best use of its current capabilities? I find ChatGPT super helpful in guiding me around topics I know nothing about. I ask it to refer me to books on the topic to make sure the information is factually correct.

AI can save your life:

Upwards of 6% of the overall population and higher in certain cohorts suffers from a mental health issue. Unless you live in Buenos Aires you will struggle with a shortage of therapists. Therapy can’t yet be completely automated, but AI tools can provide relief. In the 60s Eliza emerged – here’s an updated version. The US Veteran’s Administration is using AI to predict at-risk individuals and provide interventions. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a good therapist, it is unlikely that they are available to you (or affordable) on a daily basis. Which is where apps like “Woebot” step in – the chats are natural and can offer decent advice on improving your quality of life. It can be great for courses like mindfulness or yoga or CBT. (Here’s a great article on AI for mental health from the New Yorker.)

Marketing Takeaway:

Tools are emerging that can be used to scale well-being techniques for your employees and customers. Bake them into your customer care dialogues. But understand that no tool can deliver the tiny burst of joy we get when another human being shows they care for us. Use the tools to ensure that your humans deliver that dose of joy.

During the pandemic, one of the companies I am associated with got all their employees from CEO to sales team to reach out to their distributor network for “check-in calls”. There was just one rule – you could not talk sales until you had checked that the dealer and his family were all ok health-wise. If they said they were struggling with medical care, the call was to be terminated and the efforts would be towards trying to get them that medical care. It’s showing humanity that makes us different from AI.

In Waze (owned by Google) you can choose not just an accent but personality that gives you directions ranging from Boy George to Santa Claus to Headspace to a rapper. Certainly adds a bit of fun to the commute – and a great way of  using AI in a situation where a real human is not possible.

Women’s Day is coming up! In 2021 I’d asked y’all to hold the roses. I’m considering whether to write more or stick with that for this year too 🙂 Let me know! Here’s the 2021 article.

Have a great weekend!


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